Keeping the US cricket dream alive and kicking | Crickit

Keeping the US cricket dream alive and kicking

BySharda Ugra
Jun 13, 2024 08:30 PM IST

With the T20 World Cup caravan exiting the land of sports leagues, cricket’s big stakeholders renew “the greatest experiment in pro sport”, writes Sharda Ugra

Now that the last of the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium (NCICS) matches is over, the entire stadium itself will, to use a Potterism, disapparate. Not apparating back anywhere else anytime soon. Its Las Vegas F1 Grand Prix temporary seating will be packed into containers and sent into storage. All that will remain in Eisenhower Park is the drop-in pitch, which player-commentator Ambati Rayudu memorably called the only unwanted piece of real estate in New York. A newspaper headline talked about Nausea County.

USA's Saurabh Netravalkar and teammates celebrate the dismissal of India's Virat Kohli during their Group A match(Surjeet Yadav) PREMIUM
USA's Saurabh Netravalkar and teammates celebrate the dismissal of India's Virat Kohli during their Group A match(Surjeet Yadav)

Alright, enough with the mean jokes, it’s no fault of the good people of Long Island. While the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup leaves American shores over the weekend and heads out for the West Indies, the hard yards of ‘taking cricket to America’ story continue. Five days after the World Cup final, Season 2 of Major League Cricket begins, featuring six franchise teams over two venues — Grand Prairie in Texas and Morrisville in North Carolina.

Season one of MLC was deemed a success, Forbes reporting revenues at $8m with 17,000 spectators across the 18-day, 19-match league last year. Sanjay Govil, owner of MLC franchise Washington Freedom who moved to the US in the 1980s, said for decades “we never thought cricket was going to come to us”. But it’s here and he has a hand in it, as the only solo owner of an MLC franchise. Freedom gets its name, he says, from striving, throwing away shackles, taking a different path. Of the other five franchises, three are owned and run by IPL big dads: Texas Super Kings, LA Knight Riders and defending champions MI New York. The other two, Seattle Orcas and San Francisco Unicorns, have many millionaire co-owners.

Govil is pleased that Freedom, who partnered with Cricket NSW for game management, made the playoffs and finished third in Season 1. Season 2 should have them better prepared, with a new CEO, Cricket NSW still involved and a roster that reads Travis Head, Rachin Ravindra, Steve Smith, Marco Jansen, and T20 World Cup Team USA superhero, Saurabh Netravalkar.

What MLC is doing, Govil says, is unlike mainstream cricket. “We’re not just building a league but we’re also building the sport in the US. That’s a very different paradigm as compared to other countries. A harder thing to do.” Within the first decade of the MLC, he says, the dream is that cricket becomes a “semi mainstream” game — “like lacrosse or rugby” and MLC occupies a spot just behind the top US leagues: gridiron football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.

This will mean “not just promoting major cricket, but also minor cricket, academies, cricket in schools, having an expanded grassroot kind of thing. That is going to be very, very paramount in how we approach cricket in the US.” Increasing playing numbers from more than 100,000 weekend players, from a predominantly South Asian diaspora audience, is also part of the mission. The size of the cricket-viewing audience in the US ranges between three million to a wild consultancy figure of 25 to 30m. Govil overall is realistic. “To get to where we want — is a 20, 30, 40-year journey.”

In MLC1, 12 of 19 matches were held in the Grand Prairie (GP) cricket stadium in suburban Dallas. The ground was repurposed from an abandoned baseball venue called AirHogs Stadium for the Texas AirHogs, which folded in 2020. This exercise led to MLC being called the “hermit crabs of sports leagues by D Magazine sports editor Mike Piellucci. Like the hermit crab, MLC found an empty shell of the AirHogs stadium, climbed into it, and from there have turned Grand Prairie into “Cricket City, USA”.

In the World Cup, Grand Prairie provided the best playing surface and spectator experience. Once again, it will host 16 of the 25 MLC2 matches, with Morrisville’s Church Street Park staging the other nine. Piellucci, Dallas-born and bred, reminds me that cricket has made its entry into Dallas at a time when the city/region is enjoying its golden era across the big leagues.

The Texas Rangers have won the Major League Baseball world series, the Dallas Mavericks are in the NBA finals, its NHL team Dallas Stars have made two conference finals in a row. “And the football team (Dallas Cowboys) is the most valuable sports franchise in the world.”

He says not only will cricket have to “break through” the buzz created by the other leagues, “there’s no lull period because you are going from success to success.” Time for the Texas Super Kings to pull out their cricket league A-game, no doubt.

MLC has been positioned for July, which is known though as a ‘dry season’ for US sport in between the leagues. With summer temperatures in Dallas rising, Piellucci suggests getting a roof over the cricket ground would be a good idea. “The owners will have to convince people to go out and engage in a sport that they might not know about and do it when the weather is really, really’s a tough sell to kind of work with.”

In trying to explain Dallas’ response to its sports teams, Piellucci told contrasting stories between football/soccer and ice hockey. Dallas was an original market for Major League Soccer (Dallas Burn/FC Dallas) “but they’ve never had this huge groundswell of support…” this despite the fact that people love the sport and that Dallas is a big hub for youth soccer and its talent development pathway.

“There's a ton of talent that comes out of here… but the (MLS) team itself doesn't have the support because I guess they’re not successful… they’ve not been a consistent winner…” While the Dallas Stars ice-hockey team is much loved — even in this non-traditional ice hockey market — because, Piellucci says, “they never really tank…what they do is they’re consistently very good.” Plus, the last two seasons have had them produce “truly excellent” results.

Cricket must grab eyeballs in a multi-sports-league-saturated market. Dallas-Fort Worth teams also play in leagues across rugby, ultimate frisbee, and the spring football minor league called United Football League. In May 2024, Dallas Trinity FC women’s professional soccer team joined the USL Super League.

The MLC, however, cannot be the only event to build cricket's popularity in the country because, Piellucci says, the other leagues “are constantly on people’s minds.” He says, “It can’t just be major league cricket, there have to be more competitions, other competitions… going a few different times a year… you have to get a foothold on the calendar and claw to stay in people’s minds, to remind them.”

Cricket's growth story in the most lucrative market outside South Asia has to somehow stay relevant even after MLC2 ends in mid-July. Piellucci says it’s not just about gaining a foothold now, but also “don’t get people to forget about you the other 46 weeks of the year?” It’s no surprise that he and his magazine called MLC, and through it cricket in the US, as the “greatest experiment in pro sport”.

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